|HER WORLD||Sunday, October 5, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
More than the
SHORT skirts and noodle-strap tops, see-through shirts with shorts that barely cover her derriere, hard-drinking and hard-partying. Impossibly slim and dizzyingly tall, a go-getter career girl with snazzy mobile phones to match every outfit. Anything-but-black hair colour that comes out of a bottle, green and blue eye lenses.... And she's selling soap, jeans, shoes, cars, mobiles, washing machines, skin whitening creams and lotions, perfumes and watches.
There's a revolution "happening" and we barely notice. Slowly but surely, our advertising industry is fashioning out a new woman for us. In the war of the image between Tulsi (of the serial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) and the Nokia girl, the latter is clearly everywhere. Advertisers have
found it far easier to clone the young and 'mod' party-happy girl.
"If you look at only one advertisement or two, it doesn't hit you", says Bishaka Datta, head of Point of View (POV), a Mumbai-based NGO that works to promote the points of view of women, through creative use of the media. "But if you look at advert after advert, the pattern emerges clearly. There's no doubt that the advertising industry is aiming to create a different look - that of a westernised, fair, blonde, light-eyed, slim and high-cheek-boned young woman."
However, it isn't only the look that bothers the members of POV. It is also the messages implicit in advertisements. In a major exercise, members of the NGO began collecting adverts in which women have been used to sell different products or those in which they appear as mere appendages.
The idea was to design an interactive curriculum that young college students would use, to critically explore the relationships between women, beauty and advertising. Entitled 'The Beauty Spectrum', the multimedia curriculum has been developed by a POV team. The team includes Datta, Shilpa Phadke (a sociologist currently working on a PhD on media and sexuality), and Alexis Kort (a student of Middle Eastern Studies from Canada who did an internship with POV).
According to Kort, their purpose was to show that there is little diversity in the image of women's beauty. "These women are often portrayed in stereotypical roles (mothers, wives, or just something pretty to look at). We gathered adverts from a range of English magazines available in Mumbai, mostly Indian publications and a few international publications (like Cosmopolitan). We had about 200 ads of a huge variety of products, from cosmetics to cars." The basic criterion was simple: Anything that used an image of a woman to sell the product. The ads were categorised into those that used women in traditional roles (mothers and wives); ads that used the image of a beautiful woman somewhat out of context (like a bikini-clad young woman selling a car); and of course, a category specifically selling beauty products.
What came across was the insidious change in the overall 'look' of the women in the adverts. Both Kort and Datta were struck by the preponderance of the 'westernised' look of the women models. Besides, says Phadke, 'contradictory messages' continue to co-exist—the sari-clad, large bindi, magalsutra and sindoor sporting women, and the sex symbol images in which the bodies of motorcycles and women are placed side by side in a comparison of curves!
For the advertising, film and television world, the sari-clad image has—weirdly enough—become a pan-Indian symbol of marriage for women. Some details connected with the sari-clad image don't conform to the traditional image in certain communities. For instance, says Phadke, Gujaratis don't wear the mangalsutra traditionally. But in all the saas-bahu (mother-in-law, daughter-in-law) serials on TV, the women wear huge and conspicuous mangalsutras in Gujarati families.
The message, she said, seems to be: be Indian, be sexy, be thin, be glamorous even when your back aches, be a superwoman but what ever you do—don't think! The curriculum is being tested in a few colleges in Mumbai (beginning with St Xavier's College in July), primarily with students of media courses as POV felt that it would help to work with students undergoing training as media professionals. In eight parts, the curriculum covers a gallery of beautiful women, clocking the changes in images of beauty over the years.
Besides this, there is a body image survey; a fun board game called the beauty challenge; films that examine the body and look at alternative images of the body; and a debating session to confront one's own myths and gain other perspectives. The curriculum also includes an examination of implicit statements made in advertisements; attempts to devise creative but non-sexist advertisements; and a case study of adverts like the Fair and Lovely series.
According to Kort, the students enjoyed the curriculum very much. There was a debate in which students had to agree or disagree with a given statement. The statement 'women who dress provocatively are asking to be sexually harassed' generated a heated debate. One young man said a girl walking around dressed 'sexy', was like going into a fireworks store with a book of matches.
But most women students felt the culture they lived in provided a permissive environment for men to sexually harass women. This, they said, needed to be changed and that they should be free to wear whatever they wanted wherever they want. They also pointed out that they could be victims of sexual harassment whether they were wearing a miniskirt or a conservative salwar kameez. The students, Phadke adds, felt a sense of identification with the themes in the curriculum. They had a forum to discuss issues, articulate confusions and be provocative without the fear of being ridiculed. In this sense, she said, the exercise was a rather successful one.
The POV team did not intend a watertight agenda of indoctrination. The aim was to expose the changing visions of 'beauty' and the inconsistencies that operate across time. The hope was to encourage reflection on the constructed nature of 'beauty', and to illustrate how much it is dependent on imagery within a patriarchal culture. The team did not tell the students "what to think", instead they created a space where they could think for themselves and arrive at perceptions that were informed.
Phadke herself is anxious
and concerned about the prevailing culture among youth today. Visions of
modernity are being increasingly tied to looks rather than other kinds
of achievement. However, the POV curriculum sought to show students the
advertising industry's monolithic image of women and beauty and the
stereotypes used to sell products. As the POV team said, "We wanted
students to think more about beauty and power and how they can shake up
the status quo. They were receptive to our ideas and most important, we
gave them a forum to discuss their feelings and perceptions about the
image of women used by the mainstream media in India."
than the Mahatma’s shadow
KASTURBA was born in April, 1869 at Porbandar in Kathiawad to Gokuldas Makanjee and Vrijkunwari. Her father was a trader by occupation. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and she got engaged at the age of seven and married at thirteen . Both of them were of the same age. Gandhi pursued his studies and tried teaching the same to his wife but Kasturba never really had the inclination nor time and remained largely illiterate. The initial years between the husband and wife were of tussle as Gandhi was a dominating husband and Kasturba a rebellious soul. As Gandhi acknowledged later on in life that his first lesson in passive resistance( Satyagraha ) was learnt from her. "Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand and her quiet submission to my stupidity on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself... In the end she became my teacher in non-violence. And what I did in South Africa was but an extension of the rule of Satyagraha she practiced in her own life".
Gandhi went on to become a Barrister in England, came back to India, was unsuccessful as a lawyer and proceeded to South Africa in 1894. His stay in South Africa marks the beginning of his political as well as social metamorphosis. Kasturba joined him in 1896 and the first incident itself was an introduction to her of the life she would lead when Gandhi, on his arrival, was nearly lynched by the crowd for speaking against the treatment meted out to Indians in South Africa.
Kasturba gave up her stand on untouchability, although unwillingly, when her husband nearly showed her the door for refusing to clean the chamber pot of a Christian whose parents were from the Panchama(low)caste. Kasturba next learnt her lesson in Apargriha or non-possession when after the Boer War(1902) it was accepted by the British that the interests of the Indians would be well looked after and Gandhi felt that his role in South Africa was finished. The gifts that both of them got for helping out the Indian community was converted into a trust for the welfare of the community by Gandhi despite vehement protests by his wife. Gandhi was recalled from India the very next year when the South African government did an about turn with regard to their promises vis-`E0-vis Indians.
The Gandhi family now started living on a farm at Phoenix where Kasturba stood test to Gandhi's numerous experiments with regards to food and children's education. However, the mother of all these experiments was the adoption of Brahmacharya when both of them were thirty seven years of age. These years were hard on her. Gandhi believed that salvation could be attained by doing public service but Kasturba had no such high ambitions. She was a simple lady of her times, with ordinary desires and simple wishes, married to a constantly evolving person who made tough demands on her.. The year 1906, however is significant as that marks the departure of Kasturba's unwillingness in her participation in Gandhi's philosophy."Thenceforth, we became true friends. From 1906, really speaking, from 1901, Ba had no other interest in staying with me except to help me in my work. " Somewhere along the line the unwilling pupil got coloured in the great man's beliefs and from henceforth she was an active participant.
The Satyagraha began when the South African government demanded that all the Indians would be required to give their thumb and finger impressions. Then followed the legislation that all marriages, with the exception of those performed by Christian rites, would be regarded as null and void . Kasturba decided to become the first woman Satyagrahi and mark her protest by going to jail in Transvaal. Her health broke down in the three months she spent in jail and Gandhi nursed her till she recovered her strength.. " I see that, more and more, women are going to play an important part in the affairs of the world. They will be a great asset to any movement."
The Gandhi family came back to India on the completion of their work in South Africa and plunged into politics here. Whether it was the Champaran Satyagraha or the Ahmedabad strike, whether it was their stay in the Sabarmati Ashram or active imprisonment in various movements like the non-co-operation movement, Kasturba was like a meteor darting here and there. In times of peace she was the one who managed the Ashram and at the same time looked after Gandhi. The numerous women of India, especially the illiterate mass who till date had not stepped out of their homes followed the simple and homely Ba who became an inspiration to them. Her support to Harijans . The adoption of the charkha, Khadi, the imparting of knowledge of basic hygiene, burning of imported cloth became the milestones which an average Indian woman was imitating in every corner of the country. This is how the Gandhian movements became mass movements. The Civil Disobedience Movement again saw Ba's total participation in it. However, each imprisonment and Gandhi's fasts began to tell upon her health. It was in the Quit India movement that Ba began to fear for her life. She gave up her breath on February 22, 1944, in the Aga Khan Palace in the lap of Gandhi—as was her lifelong wish.
There are many who are
unsung, who have contributed and felt contented in their sacrifice. The
leader is the most important for it is he who inspires but the success
of the leader is ensured only by his soldiers, his disciples who follow
him as shadows. One such soldier was Kasturba, who was Gandhi's teacher
in some respects, the one who took the first brunt of rational as well
as irrational experiments and also a veteran in his plan for enlarging
national consciousness. As Harilal, the rebellious son of Mahatma, who
converted to Islam, would always say, " Kasturba ki jai"
IN the male-dominated, beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking world of British stand-up comedy, Shazia Mirza stands alone as not just a woman, but an Asian woman. And not just an Asian woman, but a Muslim Asian woman. Such isolation is a hard act to keep up.
Mirza has become renowned not only for her award-winning one-liners, but also as a positive role model for British women in a multi-cultural society. She is frequently called upon by the media to voice her opinion on a range of subjects, and her stand-up comedy has entertained audiences in the United States and on mainland Europe, as well as in Britain. She was performing at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival and Fringe until the end of August.
But Mirza has also attracted fierce criticism, especially from within her own community whose more conservative elements are offended, and not just because they don't find her jokes funny. She also says her family is still in shock over her choice of career. "My parents see me as a rebel. I don't," she says in an interview in-between her Edinburgh performances. "I just think I'm telling the truth. What's wrong with that? But the truth hurts. People sometimes don't want to hear it." She says she is not ready yet to tell the whole truth, but promises the day will come when she reveals all about her experiences a the daughter of a strict Muslim immigrant Pakistani family. About growing up in Britain's second city of Birmingham, about making her class-mates
laugh at the all-girl school she attended and about her refusal to toe the line.
"I have not begun to talk about what it is being a Muslim woman growing up in Birmingham. I have not begun to talk about my life in depth.... The disappointments my parents have faced (over her choice of career), the conflicts of going around the world as a Muslim woman, unmarried. One day I will be ready and will expose what it's really like."
Already, being a Muslim is the essence of her act. She has helped to defuse the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the wake of September 11, by joking about it. "My name is Shazia Mirza. At least that is what it says on my pilot's licence," is one of her more famous lines.
Critics say the joke is wearing thin and she should diversify. Mirza, still only 27, is herself ambitious to widen her act. She wants to be in a sitcom. Trained as a serious actress, she wants to make a Hollywood film. At the same time, she considers it inevitable that she should draw upon her own experience for her stand-up act.
"Comedians talk about their lives. Black comedians talk about being Black. Jo Brand talks about being fat," says Mirza, referring to one of Britain's larger comediennes. Confronting her background through stand-up comedy is
also a way of helping other Muslim women break out if they want to, she maintains.
"Women in my community are thinking if anyone can do that, then I can get a job in an office. I have inspired women to do what they want." Her parents, sharing the ambition of many other immigrant families in the leafier suburbs of Birmingham, wanted their daughter to be a doctor, but Mirza says she always wanted to go on stage.
As an initial compromise, she took a degree in biochemistry and became a science teacher, working in London's East End, where a class of reluctant students provided one of her toughest audiences. That, she says, is where she learned her stand-up as she resorted to humour to win her students' attention.
For formal training, she went to drama school, first part-time and then full-time, at last fulfilling her childhood ambition to act. "I started
doing the circuit at night, going to clubs." And she rapidly built a reputation, winning awards in both 2001 and 2002 at the London Comedy Festival.
Mirza has performed at two of Britain's most prestigious venues, the London Palladium and also at the Royal Albert Hall, where she performed in the notorious Vagina Monologues. Their creator, Eve Ensler, had asked Mirza to write her own monologue.
To the outsider, such risque comedy could appear completely incompatible with being a devout Muslim, but Mirza believes it can co-exist with strict faith. "I just live my normal life during the day. I still go to the mosque and I do stand-up comedy at night," she says.
She has incurred almost equal measures of praise and blame for her double life. Her website includes comments ranging from "she is brilliant" to criticism of her ethics. "Fine, make jokes, be a comedienne, but don't address yourself as a Muslim. The word Muslim means to submit to the will of Allah. By putting yourself on show without the hijab is NOT submitting to the will of Allah," writes one outraged contributor.
The other great debate is whether being a stand-up comic is not only non-Muslim, but something that women just don't do. This year's Edinburgh festival has attracted a record number of female stand-up comics, but they remain heavily outnumbered by men. Academic research has concluded stand-up fits a primarily male need for display.
But Mirza simply says she loves it. "I love it. I love the challenge. Most of the time I fail, but you start to fail better. I love making people laugh and saying what you want to say."
Mirza embraces the challenge to the extent that she wants to deliver her jokes to the world. "I want the whole world to hear about my community... not just Britain. Britain is very small."
But for the time being she shies away from perhaps the greatest challenge of all—performing in Pakistan, land of her forebears. She argues that people there need to get used to the idea of comedy before they experience her particular brand. "They (Pakistan) have asked me many times, but I'm not ready to go there yet. They never really watch comedy. They need to watch comedy before I go," she says.
A very important factor in the conflict and guilt induced in working mothers are the perceptions of people and the family. Often people close to them or others in their close circle will say: "Why does she need to work?" Or a mother-in-law, without realising the implications, says "Paise di koyi kamin taan nahin... phir vi kam kardi hai" (There is no dearth of money, still she works).
Such statements create self-doubts and reinforce the feelings of inadequacy that are created in the minds of working mothers. and reinforced by their milieu. Even the children get a conflicting message and start regarding their mother without empathy. No positive messages are sent and working is equated with neglecting children and family. A women’s value as a worker and financial provider is negated.
The viewpoint reinforced is that day care, creche or anywhere the child is left is not an exciting place. This will automatically create social anxiety in the working women who have to counter various preconceived notions and prejudices.
The woman has to resolve it by strengthening her own self-esteem and inculcating an appreciation of her work and its intrinsic value in the eyes of others. She must be convinced herself of her decision and that confidence will automatically communicate itself to others. There is a lot of self-education involved. The family too has to understand that besides the financial contribution a woman has a social responsibility as well. Men want to marry educated women due to all the plus points but do not want to be supportive and pitch in if the partner is working.
We have to educate even the women about their own responses. Missing the child should not be confused with guilt.
A woman should step out and seek help from friends, neighbours and in-laws in order to remove her stress. She also must try and build a supportive network by returning favours so that there is give and take. Spouses too should reassure each other and not hold each other guilty. Studies conducted prove that children of the working women do not suffer negatively are not reported as compared to negative findings. Even the media needs to focus on this because in the coming times more and more women are going to work. For instance, the ad about a child ringing up a corporate executive mother to say "Can I be a client for the day?" implies achievement at the cost of childcare which is not often the case. Women themselves send out contradictory and wrong signals when they are apologetic and say sorry to their children for working to alleviate the guilt momentarily. They will say:"Oh mama is really sorry for leaving you behind..." Quit the guilt for your own sake.
The writers is a
clinical psychologist (As told to AN)